Russia has become an unexpected land of opportunity for South African players and coaches, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Not long ago, most players would have balked at the idea of spending a season or two in the cold of Kazan or Siberia. Opportunities in South Africa were plentiful for seniors and juniors alike; players who left the country often did so for lucrative contracts in Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan. Russia just wasn’t on the radar.
The world has changed over the past two years and rugby along with it. SA Rugby recently slashed its franchise roster – and heading into the new year the future of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings was uncertain.
A significant number of players who haven’t managed to secure contracts at neighbouring franchises – or in England, France or Japan – have gone east to explore an opportunity in Russia. This opportunity has been sold as stepping stone, as it may well lead to more lucrative club deals or Test selection.
‘Playing in Russia can provide South Africans with a pathway to Europe,’ says Rynhard van As, a former South Western District Eagles head coach who joined the Enisei-STM management team last year.
‘The standards in Russia are high and the set-up is professional. The money is very good, and medical aid and tax are covered. If you come over here with a positive attitude, and if you embrace challenges such as the language and the cold, you will have a terrific experience. What’s more, there may be bigger opportunities down the line, such as a contract in France or the chance to play for Russia at a World Cup.’
Jeremy Jordaan, for example, has managed to enter one of Europe’s top tournaments via the back door. After spending much of his career in the Currie Cup First Division, the powerful lock took a chance at Enisei – a club based in the heart of Siberia. Jordaan earned 23 caps for the club in 2019 and was then contracted by Agen in the French Top 14.
More than 60 South Africans are involved across the Russian divisions. Almost half of them compete in the top tier. Van As tells SA Rugby magazine that the numbers will increase as ‘more and more players come to Russia in the wake of recent game-changing events’.
A large number of Super Rugby players left South Africa at the end of the previous World Cup cycle. The Covid-19 crisis accelerated the exodus to the east as well as the west. Smaller unions in South Africa have battled to retain their best players. The Cheetahs have been cut from the Pro Rugby roster. After the liquidation of the Southern Kings, top players have left the Eastern Cape en masse.
A stint in Russia has presented some of these exiles with a chance. Russia is bidding to host the 2027 World Cup and, if that bid fails, the 2031 World Cup. Rugby administrators are looking to lift the profile and standards of the local game by stacking the top clubs with foreigners – and they’re in the market for South African players of all ages.
Many, though, may be sceptical about a venture into rugby’s great unknown. Van As, former Bulls stalwarts JP Nel and Jaco Engels, and several players admitted they had their reservations when they were first approached by officials within the Russian rugby set-up.
Van As coached SWD to the Currie Cup First Division title in 2018. The financial situation at the union then deteriorated and the players and coaches were told their contracts would not be renewed.
After receiving an offer to coach in Russia, as Enisei’s backs and skills coach, Van As investigated the structures and discovered that a number of other South Africans were already involved.
Nel was part of the Bulls side that won three Super Rugby titles and several Currie Cup trophies in the mid to late 2000s. He worked under Lyn Jones as an assistant coach of the Namibian national team before he decided to explore an opportunity with Strela-Agro last season. At that stage the Kazan club – based 700km east of Moscow – was yet to qualify for the premier league.
Nel steered Strela to the division title in his first season at the helm. After that victory, he called Engels, a former Bulls teammate and then Namibia assistant coach. The big prop had promised Nel he would lend his scrumming expertise to the cause if Strela was promoted to the top flight.
Nel says Strela has progressed since then and that the growing South African contingent has been at the heart of the club’s success.
‘In the past, Russian teams would fill their foreign complement with Georgians, as Georgia boast a number of good players who all speak Russian,’ explains Nel. ‘Lately we’ve seen more South Africans occupying these foreign slots.
‘The Russians have always respected the way South Africans play their rugby. The Springboks’ victory at the 2019 World Cup has certainly enhanced that reputation. The clubs value our players’ defensive and carrying strengths. We also have a high level of skill, even at young age because our junior structures are so strong.’
Strela has eight South Africans on their books. The Russian federation may be prepared to boost the foreign quota from eight to 10, and that figure excludes two under-21 foreigners earmarked for development. In five years, these young players will be eligible to play for Russia. The more senior South African players may also feature at Test level.
‘I played club rugby in Japan towards the end of my career,’ the former Bulls centre adds. ‘I saw how they recruited a raft of foreigners at the beginning to raise the standard and to grow the game in the country ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
‘Russia is trying to achieve something similar. It’s a developing sport in this part of the world, and they’re determined to make a success of it.’
Nel and Engels keep in touch with Van As, even though the latter lives four time zones away in Krasnoyarsk. Deep in Siberia, the mercury can drop to 45 deg C below in winter.
The South African coaches and players have learned to embrace the cold and the culture. Former Blitzbok and Pumas loose forward Carel du Preez believes his decision to move to Enisei earlier this year has been vindicated.
‘Things weren’t looking particularly good for me at the Pumas – but a lot of players are in a similar position,’ the 27-year-old says. ‘The smaller unions in South Africa have been hammered financially and are battling to pay their players as a result. You can’t survive on a salary of R15 000 if you’re a professional player.
‘Opportunities in South Africa have become scarce,’ he continues. ‘Players who aren’t seen as the cream of the crop, like myself, have to weigh up their options. I see the Russian opportunity as a back door to western Europe, even though I’m committed to Enisei and want to help rugby in this country grow.
‘It’s a better chance than we have playing for a smaller union in South Africa. It may also be better for some players who don’t feature regularly at Super Rugby level. Unless you’re a top Super Rugby player who plays a certain number of games, you aren’t really in the frame for an overseas move to one of the big French or English clubs.
‘Now that I’m over here, I’ll have the chance to face teams like Worcester Warriors, the Dragons, Castres and others. I’ll have the chance to show the world what I can do.’
Former Blue Bulls wing Earll Dowrie was one of the top point-scorers in the 2018 SuperSport Challenge. Since then, he’s battled for game time at the Bulls and subsequently at Griquas. The move to Enisei may well prove a springboard to greater things.
‘If you aren’t well-known in South Africa and you aren’t getting regular opportunities at Super Rugby, Pro14 or even Currie Cup level, you’re going to struggle to make ends meet as a player. So if you get an offer to play the game you love, and get paid for it, you must grab it with both hands,’ he says.
‘I still have mates asking me what it’s like in Russia, because they’re sceptical. I’m committed to making the most of this opportunity, though. I’m not sure where it may lead.’
Engels, an uncompromising prop in his prime, believes South Africans have the physical and mental strength to succeed in a hard and at times brutal Russian rugby environment.
‘The weather does take some getting used to,’ he says. ‘It’s not like South Africa, where you basically live in shorts when you’re training on the field and in the gym. You’re out there with a beanie on your head, jackets, skins … We don’t really play in the snow, as that’s the off-season, but it gets chilly well before winter.
‘The mentality, however, is something South Africans will respect,’ Engels explains. ‘The term we use is “sobaka” which means dog in Russian. You need to be a mongrel to survive these battles.
‘Most of these local players had tough upbringings. They are built for the fight. The people are down-to-earth and the local players view rugby as a battle. There is no fear about them. They fly into each other in games.
‘The matches are played at a lower tempo, with less ball in play than we see in the Currie Cup or Super Rugby. There’s a big emphasis on the contest at the set pieces and breakdowns, as is the case in other parts of Europe.’
Engels reiterates that a move to Russia will become a more attractive option as the opportunities in South Africa dry up. ‘Japan is full – they can’t take any more players. A lot of players are trying to get into the second and third divisions in France but there are limitations there too,’ he says.
‘South Africans may well give Russia a try, as the environment is suited to their natural style of play and mentality. Players who are not in the top echelon may view this as a chance to put themselves back on the map.
‘Some players are targeting qualification for the Russia national team over the next five years. When you can’t play for the Boks, you do look for other opportunities in international rugby,’ he adds. ‘It was the same for me, when I played 15 Tests for Namibia [between 2013 and 2015].’
More than 60 South Africans are spread across Russia’s clubs. The numbers will rise as the recruitment drive gathers momentum and as more and more players realise the benefits of heading east.
Former Bok wing Bjorn Basson played for Enisei-STM last season. The Blitzbok and Pumas No 8 Carel du Preez, Valke flank Friedle Olivier and Bulls wing Earll Dowrie are among the foreign contingent at the Siberia-based club.
Strela-Agro’s South African legion has swelled to eight with the arrival of former Blitzbok Donovan du Randt and others. Kings prop Martin Dreyer is part of an equally sizeable group at Slava Moscow.
Former Kings scrumhalf Leighton Eksteen turns out for VVA Saracens, while ex-EP flyhalf Oliver Zono plies his trade with Krasny Yar. Ulrich Beyers, the former SA U20 and Bulls fullback, was recently snapped up by the Vladivostok Tigers.